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Upskilling Union Members: Why It’s Worthwhile and How To Help

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg | Nov 25, 2019

Digital innovations have far-reaching effects in every industry. In manufacturing, robots weld car parts; in education, teachers lead online classes. 

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have taken jobs, but at the same time, they've replaced them with new positions. By 2020, automation and AI are predicted to eradicate 1.8 million jobs but create another 2.3 million. And those new roles often demand new skills. Members accustomed to relying on the same technical skills they'd been using for years are now finding that they need to incorporate new technologies into their work. 

As industries continue to advance, upskilling union members — that is, helping them acquire new job skills — has become vital to keeping members' abilities fresh and relevant in the face of changing digital tools.

Adapting to New Technologies 

In the building trades, upskilling for carpenters may mean learning how to work alongside new machines that automate parts of the building process. Researchers at MIT, for example, have created robots that can build custom carpentry projects.

In manufacturing, upskilling might mean getting comfortable with cobots, or machines that actively work alongside people. In Germany, for example, workers at a Ford factory plant team up with cobots on assembly lines installing shock absorbers. AI makes itself useful in manufacturing in a variety of ways, including predicting when machines need repair.

These industry changes will continue to happen whether workers make themselves open to learning or not. However, members who don't learn new skills risk being left behind when promotions and other opportunities arise at work.

3 Ways to Upskill Your Members 

As a union leader, you can help your members with upskilling. Stress to them that technological advances don't mean they'll lose their job. They do, however, need to adapt. One study of 1,500 companies reported that firms see the most significant performance improvements when machines and humans work together. 

Consider the following three tips as you work to help upskill your members. 

  1.  Match them with mentors. A great mentor can help members develop new skills even more quickly. Members with more experience in a certain field will be familiar with the tools needed for success and the coming changes in technology — ask them to help you set up an official mentoring program or volunteer to serve as a mentor.
  2.  Promote personalized development plans. For some members, keeping up with evolving technology will feel overwhelming. They may not know where to start. A personalized development plan identifies skills that a member wants to work toward and gives them a framework for reaching their goals in small bites.
  3.  Help locate learning opportunities. Do some of the legwork for members by finding ways for them to pick up new skills and knowledge. Start by consulting others in the field to identify technological skills that are becoming increasingly important. Then, compile a list of ways to acquire those skills. Include a mix of local, in-person courses and trainings as well as any virtual or online opportunities.

For skills that are more straightforward, consider hosting a training session of your own. Members, and especially younger ones, will thank you. One survey of Generation Z workers shows that 91% consider professional training crucial to choosing an employer.

Upskilling opportunities are critical for your members' long-term success and value as workers. Change is inevitable across industries. More and more, AI and automated technology are taking over mundane tasks. As you begin to support upskilling union members, you'll see them become more valuable in the evolving market — which can only mean good things for morale, satisfaction, engagement and the future success of your members.

With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.